Today, in the year 1170 of the Hegira, as I finish the narration of my journey to Mount Meru, I can’t help thinking about Omui. He was the best storyteller in all Mombasa. The fabulous stories he would tell every Friday in the square in front of the grand mosque always enchanted me. I keep the memory of that man alive within me. I like to think that I’m made of the same stuff and that like him, I too belong to the race of enchanters. Of course, I’m guilty of pride to think that, especially since I write my words out with a pen, whereas his are spoken. But my inspiration, just like his, comes from the turbulent waters of language. We skim off the foam and decorate the somber parchment of existence with our sentences.
Omui’s stories were always captivating. After prayers each Friday, people would gather on the square in front of the mosque El-Rani near the tree that sheltered the old man from the sun. I never missed one of these sessions, nor the gatherings at Omui’s house, and I didn’t care if my friends made fun of me. As they saw it, the real motive for my being there was Omui’s niece, who lived with her uncle. They were jealous that a boy could love the girl his family had chosen to be his wife. It’s true that I’ve always associated Omui’s name with Hasmahani’s. I had known her since we were kids. Our friendship began to develop during my fifteenth year. Deep affection brought us together, and curiously, our love was born from a broken vase.
I had come to see the girl’s brother. He wasn’t there and I was invited to wait for him in the living room. I sat there alone. I could hear the sound of the sea mingling with the shouts of children playing in the street outside. Specks of dust were dancing in the sun’s rays as they streamed through the windows. I loved that atmosphere, and letting myself drift into a dream world, I ended up dozing off. A quiet greeting drew me from my somnolence. There stood Hasmahani at the far end of the room, her back to the window and a large vase in her hands. She had come silently into the room, and it was as if her silhouette against the window, wrapped as it was in a light veil, had just stepped out of a dream. She set the vase down on a table and slipped away before I could utter a word. I hadn’t expected her to disappear so quickly. I gathered my wits, stood up, and walked over to the vase as if I needed to find out if it all had been a dream. There was indeed a vase on the table, an Indian or Chinese vase. These oriental vases that Arab merchants carry in the holds of their ships are unusual in Mombasa. This one was made of white porcelain and very beautiful, but a crack marred its surface. It had been broken and glued back together. It seemed strange to display a defective vase like that here in the living room. The rareness of the piece couldn’t hide its current imperfection.
Hasmahani once again lifted up the cloth that hung in the doorway and stood there right in front of me with a bouquet of hyacinths in her hand. She first stepped back in surprise, but then walked over and put the flowers in the vase.
“Why do you keep a vase that’s cracked like this?”
“Well, because it’s cracked it’s able to love the flowers it holds. And that makes them even more lovely,” she said melodiously.
“How does that make them prettier?”
“The vase lived through a catastrophe, and it realizes that it’s fragile. So it pays attention to sensitive creatures. That’s why I give it flowers. It will unveil their beauty.”
As she finished the sentence she smiled with a little movement of her head and then lowered her eyes. The idea captivated me. A smile grew in my heart without ever making it to my face. Happiness filled me, and finally I smiled and then even burst into laughter. I knew that I was a little cracked like the vase, even though I wasn’t quite sure what flower I might be carrying around within me. But the momentary emotion was enough to open a little door.
A month went by. I loved Hasmahani but had never told her so. One morning, I decided to take her some flowers. I was in luck to find her home. Omui was absent. One of his wives invited me in. She was surprised to see me carrying flowers and left me alone with the girl.
“Hasmahani, I’ve brought you some flowers.”
“Flowers? Why flowers?”
“For the vase.”
“The vase doesn’t need any flowers.”
“Well, they’re more for the woman I love than for the vase.”
The girl waited a moment before speaking.
“Only a man knows how to love, Bayu, and you’re just a boy.”
“No, I’m a man.”
“You? A man?”
Her laughter rang out light as a bell. I was vexed and showed her my hands.
“Just look at my fingers, Hasmahani. They can write the Quran and they’ll soon be sculpting the doors of your house.”
“You’re dreaming, Bayu. You’re dreaming, but you still haven’t dreamed enough since you haven’t made the journey to Mount Meru.”
“Who gave you the right to talk about that?”
“The woman I’ll be. Without completing that journey you can never be a man.”
“That’s my clan’s business! You don’t know anything about our rituals!”
“One thing I do know is that young men of your clan can’t get married until they come back from Mount Meru. Before they give someone flowers, they’ve dug in the ground and found its roots. You haven’t.”
Her impudence hurt me. She was only a kid, two years younger than I, and she said things like that. I put the flowers down and left furiously.
I found myself walking through the tiny streets of the city, so angry that I didn’t even greet the people I knew. As I came around a corner, the wall of the Kilindini mosque appeared before me. I could see the branches of the fig tree in front of the mosque. It was a real surprise to find myself near that tree, and it was as if Hasmahani’s words had led me there. For the fig tree’s unusual history is related to the story of my own clan. And to the journey to Mount Meru that every male in the El-Mudi family must undertake.
The fig tree in front of the Kilindini mosque is centuries old. It stands there backed up against the façade of an ancient mosque in the middle of an esplanade paved with black and white stones. The white ones are cut from limestone that comes from the interior of the continent, whereas coral brings the sea’s black desires to the darker stones. They form a chessboard on which the fig tree is the only piece in the game of sunlight and shadow played by the sun and the leaves. A garden and its stone wall surround the esplanade. The first thing you notice when you enter the esplanade is the fig tree. And it protects the place. Its multiple trunks twist and form voluptuous poses composing the tree’s branches. Its thick foliage, its air roots hanging down like vines, and the insects swarming around the figs give the tree a wild expression, the kind of savagery that we normally associate with animals or men but never with plants. And so it’s a real surprise for a Muslim walking through the mosque gate for the first time and standing face to face with this tree that’s come straight from some obscure forest. The visitor is even more surprised when he sees the pool for libations and the mihrab and the minbar1 right there shaded by the tree. For he has just realized that the tree’s foliage is like the vault of a prayer room!
If he asks how all this has come about, he’ll hear a very strange story. Eight generations have come and gone, but the El-Mudi clan still clings to the memory of that strange story. It’s like the glowing embers of a fire that will never die out among us.
When the Sultan Abdallah made his pilgrimage to Mecca, he decided to glorify his return by inaugurating a new mosque. He entrusted the job to Badrani Nyuni El-Mudi, for the El-Mudi family always supplied the city’s best artisans and architects. Rather than building a brand new mosque, they decided to enlarge the old mosque, tearing down some buildings around it in order to do so. They agreed to lay out a garden so that they could hear bird songs as they walked to prayers. The sultan gave Badrani complete authority, and he opened his coffers and authorized soldiers to do some of the heavy work. His only requirement: everything had to be finished by the time he returned. Three months seemed like a short time, but they weren’t much of a constraint for Badrani given his freedom to work. He would be able to act at will, without interference from the imam, who was going along with the sultan, or from the regent, who had been chosen because he was too weak to plot against the sultan. It was said that he was intelligent enough to counter any intrigues planned by other family members but stupid enough not to conspire against the sultan himself. Even if the regent had expressed some reservations about Badrani’s architectural plans, Badrani would have stood up to him. The El-Mudi clan’s reputation is as old as the clan itself. We are noble. And the lion doesn’t need to ask the bird to sing. He simply listens to it.
So Badrani was free to plan the new mosque’s structure without any constraint except to create a garden. A crazy idea was beginning to germinate in his mind, an extraordinary idea. Only a man like my ancestor could ever have come up with it. It came from a dream that he had had when he was a child. He was walking out in a sun-drenched savanna past skinny trees whose thorny branches had no leaves. The ground was scorching, and the air was hot and dry. Fatigued to the bone, he was looking for a place to rest, and coming around a hill he saw a gigantic tree. Its branches were raised toward the heavens and then slowly bent down like a praying man, and it looked like an immense parasol covering the earth. Some blue flowers were growing in the tree’s peaceful shade. A fountain was bubbling under the tree with some sunlight reflecting off its little white stone wall even though it was partially shaded, and it seemed to be there to quench travelers’ thirst as well as to invite them to offer libations before they pray. The child started running toward this cool haven, but stopped in his tracks. In his haste he hadn’t noticed the animal on the white stone wall, a leopard whose spotted coat blended with the scattered patches of light projected on the ground through the foliage. His first instinct was to run, but the water, protected there by its stones, seemed to beckon to him. Though he couldn’t see the water, he could certainly sense it. The water would quench his thirst, flow into his body and appease his senses bruised by the dry air. He moved forward. Motionless, the leopard let him approach. Its yellow eyes, split like black almonds, stared at him.
“Good morning, leopard,” said the child.
“Good morning, little man.”
“I’m very thirsty, leopard, and I think I see a fountain there.”
“Yes, you do, little man. There is a pool full of water. Since I stand guard over it day and night, I can no longer hunt and I am very hungry. What will you give me if I let you drink?”
“I have nothing to give you, leopard. I’m the son of an artisan but I can caress you. Have you never been caressed by a man?”
“Once, I believe. A man placed his hand on my head. But he let go when I ripped open his throat with my fangs.”
“That must not have been a caress, leopard. I’m talking about the feeling on your body when a hand glides lovingly over your fur like the evening breeze after the day’s heat.”
“The caresses my sisters give me are enough. Your hand is made to be eaten.”
“But leopard, I’m offering you the unique opportunity to feel the extraordinary softness of a man’s hand on your coat. My caress will make every spot on your fur open up. It will be just like the first raindrops penetrating the ground at the end of the dry season.”
“The human hands I’ve encountered up to now haven’t been so well intentioned. They’ve always been holding lances or bows and arrows. One of those hands had a good aim and I felt a strange burning.”
“The desert rose germinates in the burning sun, O leopard. So far, you’ve known only its thorns. Let me give you the flower.”
The leopard turned its head slightly and said:
“Fine. Come ahead.”
The child moved toward the leopard. The leopard couldn’t see the knife behind the boy’s back sheathed in his belt. He had planned that once he had the leopard’s attention as he stretched his hand out to caress it, with one swift movement he would be able to grab his knife with his other hand and slit the leopard’s throat. He made ready to act. But when he moved his hand toward the leopard’s head he realized-and it was like a revelation-that the animal had the same idea. It was getting ready to rip him to shreds with its claws. But there was no turning back. His hand was already touching the animal’s head. Both the boy and the leopard started slightly when the boy’s palm made contact with the creature’s fur. A feeling of wellbeing spread through both bodies, a feeling of peace radiating from the point of contact between man and beast. A great quietude filled them and wiped out their desire to kill. Both the boy and the animal smiled.
With the smile still on his lips Badrani Nyuni El-Mudi woke up, leaving the sea of dreams.
Although he was only a child, Badrani was marked by that fantastic dream still firmly anchored in his memory. Its meaning remained obscure until the day the sultan proposed the mosque project. As soon as the sultan explained what he wanted, Badrani’s excitement rose because he finally understood what his dream meant. But he was careful not to talk about it and pretended to listen attentively to the sultan. He left the palace excited by the idea that had bowled him over at the beginning of the conversation. The mosque would be like the tree in his dreams, the mosque would be that very tree. When he walked through the palace gates he looked instinctively out at the sea and broke into a smile. For there off the Mombasa coast lies an island covered with exuberant vegetation. No boat had ever put ashore, because its name-kisiwa cha chui, Leopard Island-had been enough to keep sailors away. It was right on the way to Socotra, and many travelers saw a leopard resting in the trees as they passed by. Nobody knew how the wild animal survived nor how it got on the island in the first place, because several leagues separated the island from the mainland. The animal especially liked to climb into a fig tree, and even the tree was an enigma because it was a variety of fig tree that grew only in the hinterlands and was unknown along our coasts The fig tree’s presence added mystery to the island. All sorts of rumors were floating around. And they changed with every boat that passed near the island before docking in Mombasa. The general opinion was that a sorcerer lived on the island and could turn himself into a leopard to frighten away sailors.
After the sultan left for Mecca, Badrani gathered the artisans in the family together and told them about his plans.
“The mosque will be made from the fig tree on Leopard Island. We will go dig up the tree, bring it back by boat, and then we’ll plant it in the soil of our island blessed by Allah. It will be the vault of the prayer room. Beyond the shade it casts at midday we’ll create the garden. Our prayer will begin as soon as we enter the park. There’s no reason to build walls. Allah’s work itself is enough.”
Consternation filled everyone’s face. What had smitten Badrani? What man in his right mind could imagine turning a tree into a mosque? And what a crazy idea to go dig up a tree on an island inhabited by evil spirits!
His brother was the first to speak.
“How can you ever dig up the tree if it’s guarded by a leopard? Nobody is going to be willing to go along with you.”
“Tomorrow I’ll go to the island. I’ll stay a week. When I come back, the leopard will no longer be dangerous.”
“May the leopard devour you so that I won’t have to see my brother swinging from a rope,” Badrani’s brother replied.
He stood up and walked out. The other men hurried out as well. Badrani was left by himself, but wasn’t too worried by his friends’ and relatives’ reaction. When he got back alive, their surprise would be so great that they would let Badrani carry out his plans. For a man who conquers a leopard must surely be allied with supernatural forces! (I must say right now that the El-Mudi family has never practiced witchcraft. In human memory, nobody has ever heard about any man of the family dabbling in sorcery. It’s true that Ahmed Mauli was found dead in strange circumstances after he had insulted a clan member in public. But all honest men agree that poisoning is not an act of witchcraft.)
Badrani’s prediction came true. He came back in one piece from the island, and that impressed them all and they let him pursue his work. The big subject of discussion in the city was what the sultan’s reaction would be. Would he massacre the entire family or would he be content to torture Badrani? Some members of the clan left Mombasa to go to Malindi or Kilwa seeking protection from the disaster that Badrani was bringing down upon them. As people walked by the mosque under construction, all they could say was that Badrani was building his own scaffold.
At the meeting where Badrani ordered them to build a crane and get a dhow ready to go get the fig tree, there was one question on everyone’s lips, but nobody dared ask it. Finally a young man got up the courage.
“What has become of the leopard?”
“The leopard is no longer dangerous.”
“Did you see it?”
“How did you tame it?”
“I became a leopard myself.”
“You became a leopard?”
“Yes, I became a leopard.”
Badrani didn’t say anything more about it. His victory over the leopard conferred on him a great deal of prestige. The courage he had displayed was all the more admirable because old visceral fears and the memory of battles between men and leopards still disturbed the soul of the people living in Mombasa.
Badrani worked vigorously to build the mosque. The mihrab was made with bricks covered with ceramic and marble. The minbar, made from teak and cashew wood, came from one of our family’s workshops. Slaves cut the paving stones for the prayer room. The sultan’s gardeners were requisitioned to create the park. Finally, no fewer than one hundred men set out for the island. They set up camp near the fig tree where so many sailors had seen a leopard. No animal calls could be heard in the woods around them. The men were no longer terrified, but there was still mistrust in the air. It began to dissipate, however, as the excavation moved along. A difficult task awaited the men. First they attached the fig tree to the crane and then began to dig around the roots that were so deep they seemed to form a new tree buried in the ground. The workers’ amazement was great. Lassitude set in, and then fear took over. Mightn’t the mass of wood, ripped out of its earthen sheath, dripping mud, smash them to pieces if it fell, even though strong ropes held it to the crane? Badrani had to go back to Mombasa and buy some slaves from an Arab merchant about to send them to Arabia. Along with some soldiers, he took them to the island. The slaves finished the labor and the soldiers used their whips. Four goats were sacrificed so the earth might forgive them for taking away something precious.
Transporting the tree to Mombasa was easy because Arab dhows have wide holds that are able to carry heavy cargoes. Hadn’t they even carried some giraffes to China?
In Mombasa, Badrani’s success excited everyone. They all eagerly watched as the boat arrived in the port and the fig tree was hauled to the mosque. And the project’s master gained enormous popularity. Crowds pressed around the work area when the tree was replanted. The fig tree stood gracefully above the paving stones, casting a large shadow in the middle of the sun-drenched park. On the wall of the former mosque they could see the new mihrab and the new minbar, and it seemed perfectly normal to begin praying there. Badrani realized that he had succeeded when the tree began to bloom. They were just the little timid flowers that fig trees produce, but they still proved that the tree would survive. Badrani was a happy man, even if a shadow did sometimes drift over his happiness-what would the sultan think?
Days passed. One morning a sail appeared on the horizon, a brown triangle filled out by the trade winds and by one man’s pride. Crowned with the title of Hadji, the sultan was coming back to take possession of his kingdom, his island, the pearl on the edge of the continent. His joy to be returning was tempered somewhat by the fear that a plot against him was being prepared on the island. He was reassured to see the huge crowd there to welcome him and all the important people waiting on the quay. His last suspicions faded away when he entered his palace. Order reigned. None of the people close to him had been poisoned. The regent had been able to counter his brothers’ and cousins’ vague desires for power, and the rival factions had neutralized each other. The Lion was home again. The mass of people surrounding him so obsequiously held no importance for him as long as they remained docile. He sat down in front of a row of men waiting eagerly to drink his words like a child drinking at his mother’s breast. He told them about his trip, transforming it into a major exploit so they would all realize that the success of his journey was due to the work of Allah. Then he enquired about several items, first of all about how his homecoming celebration had been organized. But he didn’t ask about the mosque. He took leave of his guests by saying that the next day he would go to the mosque for prayers. Nobody dared speak.
The following day, the men gathered at the mosque’s entrance, sheltered from the sun by the garden wall. To everyone’s surprise, Badrani had shown up. At least his honor was safe. The sultan appeared, responded to their greetings and stepped through the gate. He stopped in his tracks. Nothing had really changed and yet nothing was as before. There was indeed a pleasant garden in the square and a path lined with young flame trees. The flowers’ bright colors directed his eyes to the expanse of grass interlaced with paths. But all these paths led toward the former mosque where he saw a tree growing. It couldn’t have been uglier, covered as it was with vines and encumbered by birds and insects. It was a fig tree, one of those trees under whose shade blacks from the interior liked to sit and talk. No sign of a new mosque. Instead of a majestic building with its proud minaret standing tall, there was nothing at all except the old mosque and that hideous tree.
“Where is the mosque?” the sultan asked.
Finally Badrani broke the embarrassing silence.
“The mosque is the tree you see here before you, sultan.”
“That tree? A mosque?”
“The tree forms the vault of the prayer room. Already it provides protection from the sun, and in a few decades its foliage will be so thick that even the rain won’t be able to get through.”
“How about that!” exclaimed the sultan.
And he grew silent. Amid the confusion that filled him, there was something he didn’t understand, some question still unanswered. His mind had formulated the question but then it slipped away. Submerged under a wave of emotions, the sultan was unable to recall what it was. Finally, he remembered:
“Where does this tree come from?”
“From Leopard Island,” answered Badrani.
So Badrani had not only committed the sacrilege of turning a tree into a place of prayer, he had gone to an island inhabited by sorcerers to get it! The sultan’s anger would have exploded if he hadn’t been so worried. For although he was a good Muslim and held the title of Hadji, the man was deathly afraid of sorcery. Even if you pray five times a day, regularly fast and give alms, profess the oneness of Allah and the prophet’s mission, and even undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca, it’s still wise to protect yourself against sorcerers. The sultan paused to reflect. His advisors, that band of imbeciles, sons of infidel women, hadn’t said one word since he arrived and there they sat motionless, frozen by fear. Badrani was known for the liberty he took with religion-hadn’t he even carved a bird on the lintel of a door destined for the mufti’s house?-but his family was above reproach. No possible links with sorcery.
“Did you and your men manage to dig up that tree and bring it all the way here?”
The sultan swallowed. His saliva tasted bitter in his throat, tightened as it was by anguish and irritated by his anger. He had come back from Arabia supported by his prayers in Mecca. He had circled the Kaaba tower seven times and then kissed the black stone in an ultimate act of submission. In communion with the thousands of faithful, his consciousness had been absorbed into something far greater and truly ineffable. Faith illuminated his thoughts. His dream was to anchor Mombasa to the Orient, turning it into an outpost of civilization, and now these people in Mombasa had just reminded him that the island really belonged to Africa.
“And what has become of the leopard?”
“The leopard has remained what it was.”
The sultan began to think. Badrani was the city’s best artisan because he combined obvious artistic qualities with a solid architectural background. He had decorated the houses of several notable citizens with magnificent carved doors and had mastered the techniques of building high minarets. He was perfectly competent to build the new mosque. And yet here, instead of carving birds Badrani was planting trees to attract them.
“Come, Badrani. Let’s look more closely at the tree.”
The two men walked toward the tree and sat down on one of the mats spread out over the stones. Badrani could sense the sultan’s wrath and didn’t open his mouth. In spite of his rancor, the sultan looked around at the unusual prayer room, contemplated the mihrab and the minbar. He too was silent, and then suddenly he asked a question.
“Badrani, why did you plant this tree?”
“To make my dream come true, sultan.”
“A dream that I had when I was a child and this tree appeared to me like a mosque. Since then I have never stopped trying to understand my dream. And now I know.”
“What do you know?”
“That life is a tree.”
“And we are all dreams.”
“Badrani, I’m still not sure I’ll spare your life. But tell me, why did you go to that island to get the tree?”
“In my dream there was a leopard.”
“Oh, that’s why . . . and . . . didn’t the leopard do anything?”
“It didn’t dare attack the men. It stayed hidden back on the island.”
Relief spread over the sultan’s face. There wasn’t a trace of sorcery in this business. The family mganga would organize a ceremony to chase away any spirits that might still be hanging around the tree and there would no longer be any danger.
“You’re a strange man, Badrani. The next time, maybe you’ll go look for a tree on Mount Meru!”
In those days, Mount Meru was the furthest point in the hinterlands that the caravans had reached.
“Come on,” he said, as if to keep his anger from getting the upper hand now that his anxiousness was fading away.
The two men reached the garden gate. A huge crowd was massed near the exit. The sultan wondered why until he realized that all these men had come for prayers. He turned toward Badrani and looked him in the eyes for the first time.
“Badrani, I’ll spare your life. But you must leave. You are banished from Mombasa for . . . for three years. Go where you like. . . .”
Badrani left Mombasa without revealing a word about his destination, much to his family’s great displeasure, for they were furious that he would sever all ties so abruptly. And it didn’t help any that he didn’t send back any news for three years. Finally he reappeared in a caravan loaded with ivory, wax, and iron. He brought back some big wooden beams cut from trees unknown in Mombasa. They were lovely pieces of wood with dense compact texture, ideal for making doors and bas-relief sculptures. They had been cut from conifers that grew only in the African uplands.
The wood came from Mount Meru. So that’s where Badrani had spent his time in exile, away on that far-off mountain that was almost inaccessible in those days and still not very well known today. Beyond Mount Meru stretches an immense savanna inhabited by wild animals and evil spirits.
While Badrani was absent, his prestige grew. He was a man of integrity who had stood up to the sultan to achieve his destiny. His forced exile didn’t seem justified any more, except perhaps to shore up the reign of the potentate who couldn’t stand for anything to cast a shadow on his own power. The mosque and the fig tree became a place of prayer and conviviality. Badrani’s return was celebrated as a victory for the El-Mudi family. The clan’s notoriety increased and along with it more orders for carvings. Badrani set up trade with the Swahili caravans going to Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru, and they brought back precious wood. His role increased within the clan. In just a few years he became the most listened to and the most influential man among the elders. And that’s when he imposed the ritual that all the male children of the El-Mudi clan must follow. He announced that to become an adult, every boy would have to make a journey to Mount Meru so he could dream three dreams. Our young men needed to be tested and to gain strength on the difficult path. There were fears that some might disappear en route. But even in Mombasa the clan wasn’t safe from harm. Smallpox decimated the clan from time to time, the plague almost wiped them out, the Portuguese killed several of our men, the city was besieged by African warriors, and finally even the bloody rivalries that sometimes shook the sultanate also affected the El-Mudis.
So people accepted the idea of an initiation journey. They did raise the objection that it seemed strange for Muslims to turn toward the interior of the continent where black pagans lived. Badrani answered:
“The sun rises in the east but sets in the heart of Africa.” And he added: “Muslims or pagans, we’re all black.”
So most of the men accepted Badrani’s proposal. They all agreed, however, that they would keep the boys home until they had fully mastered the secrets of wood. That way they wouldn’t lose their refined senses during the journey. A generation after that decision, most of the adults had made the journey and nobody questioned the rite of passage which distinguishes the El-Mudis from the other Mombasa clans. The practice has continued up to our day. But we have to admit that its purpose is mysterious. For what does it mean to dream? The elders don’t have much to say about dreaming when they give advice to the novices about their upcoming voyage. They stick to very concrete advice about which itinerary to follow and how to act. It’s up to the future initiate to understand the meaning of the ritual he will undertake. He will plumb the depths of his dreams. And he’s free to take from it whatever he wants. But he does need to learn to listen.
And thus the boy sets off, leaving his native island and taking the path toward another life.
Hasmahani’s attitude had annoyed me so much that I refused to see her for several weeks. But I had an important piece of news I wanted to share with her.
We saw each other at a wedding, but in the commotion of all the guests it wasn’t easy to speak. During the evening banquet I was the one who started a discussion. The discussion was about the baobab standing in the market square. Its trunk looked like a swollen hand that had been stung by a wasp, and it was said to have hidden a family during the sack of the city by the terrible Zimbas. The water in its trunk quenched the fugitives’ thirst and they were able to live on the tree’s fruit. Little good that did them in the end, because the Zimbas noticed the fruit was disappearing and climbed up into the tree. The unfortunate people were found and killed. I’ve often wondered how we ever learned about that story, because the Zimbas devastated the city without leaving any survivors. Then they went on to Malindi, but there they were wiped out by the warriors of that region. Since there had been no survivor, I would like to know who started the story about the baobab. Really, the only living survivor after the Zimbas left was the baobob. I brought that point up during the wedding. And then everybody tried to come up with some witness who had escaped the massacre, inventing some hiding place, like in a house that hadn’t even been built yet or proposing some name that we heard for the first time.
At the end of that conversation, Hasmahani came up to me and whispered in my ear:
“The baobab passed on the story to the market women, to the pregnant market women.”
When she saw my incredulous look, she smiled and raised her eyebrows. And then, adjusting her veil that had slipped down from her hair, she walked away.
I caught up with Hasmahani as she was walking home with her brother. He let me accompany her home. It was already dark. The rising moon cast its light on the streets.
“Hasmahani, the clan elders have decided that with the next full moon I’ll leave Mombasa for Mount Meru.”
“The elders have also confirmed that our two families would like to see us get married when I return.”
She didn’t answer, but pulled her veil over her chin. It seemed to me that she was smiling.
“What would you like me to bring you from Mount Meru?”
She stopped and looked at me. In the darkness I couldn’t see her face very clearly, framed as it was by her veil that hung down over her jellaba. The girl’s silhouette resembled the tree trunks sculpted in my father’s workshop. My desire made her breasts stand up deliciously under the cloth, but I hadn’t done enough woodcarving to bring out her face. I didn’t like the portrait the night was painting before my eyes, in spite of Hasmahani’s charm. There was something still missing. The easy thing would have been to blame the darkness, but I had the vague feeling that the girl’s true beauty was at stake. Her grace escaped me, because my true sight hadn’t yet been born.
“A flower. The flower that you will give birth to.”
“I thought that only women could give birth.”
“Aren’t you an artist?”
“I’m an artisan. I can carve only those designs that my father has taught me. That’s not the same thing as creation.”
“How about your ancestor Badrani Nyuni El-Mudi? He was surely a creator since he was inspired by the island leopard.”
“The leopard? Nobody knows how he got rid of it. Probably by force.”
“By force! The leopard called to him in a dream and he went off to hunt it! You don’t get it, Bayu. Were it not for that leopard, you wouldn’t be one of the best wood carvers in Mombasa.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The leopard is what nudged your ancestor to turn toward creating.”
“The leopard! It’s such a dangerous animal!”
“All creation carries with it some risk.”
“Hamsahani, you are really strange. You’re only a girl and yet you claim to know about the origin of the El-Mudi clan. You shouldn’t be acting like this. Your family would be embarrassed if they knew how you were speaking to your future husband.”
“My future husband is an El-Mudi, just like my sons will be. They will need to understand that the leopard is the creative breath of their clan.”
What strange words. I didn’t know how to respond, but it seemed to me that there was some truth in what she was saying.
“All right, Hamsahani. Maybe you’re right that I can’t be a man until I complete the journey to Mount Meru. I hope that I’ll live to know you as my wife, for it’s a perilous journey. There’s no guarantee that I’ll make it back.”
Hamsahani didn’t say anything.
Her house, located near the water’s edge, wasn’t very far away. We could hear the sea. The sea smells wafted over us like the perfume of incense from a far-off country that gave the ocean its name. The sound of the waves, the wind’s caress, and the smell of algae were inebriating.
When we started down the last tiny street toward her house, I had the strange sensation that something was out of whack. The path grew hazy, and the road we were walking on scarcely seemed real. It was as if I was out of step, out of synch with the real world.
I heard a voice.
“I do hope you come back, Bayu.”
I nodded absentmindedly, because I had already set out on the path toward Mount Meru.
1 Mihrab: Pulpit from whence the community guide delivers his sermon at Friday prayers; minbar: the niche that points in the direction of Mecca. [Author’s notes]
From Trois r’ves au Mont Mérou (Paris: Actes Sud, 2003). By arrangement with the publishers. Translation copyright 2005 by Lauren Yoder. All rights reserved.